Originally a browser-based game engine, the Unity 3D engine is now branching out to cover PC, MMOs, Wii and iPhone. Develop catches up with Unity's CEO to see what's on the horizonů
As business plans go, launching a middleware company that offers a game engine which competes against the ubiquitous online Flash technology – and one that, in terms of its development platform, only supports Apple Macs – would hardly get you the support of those canny entrepreneurs on Dragon’s Den. But then again, those canny Dragons made their cash in ceramics, nursing homes and ladies underwear, not technology – which is why they’re showing off on TV while David Helgason, CEO of Copenhagen-based Unity Technologies, is hard at work.
And hard work it must be, dealing with a burgeoning success story that’s currently being used to create three game portals, five virtual worlds and two as the client technology for MMOs – Cartoon Network’s kid-focused FusionFall and an as-yet unannounced casual game from Age of Conan publisher Funcom.
Of course, that’s not to mention the hundreds of Unity licences sold to everyone from bedroom coders to established game studios – an indie license costs $200 per seat and scaling to a maximum of $1,988 if your company made over $100,000 in its last financial year, and that’s for the more expensive release with the additional version control server. It’s $1,499 without.
And if that activity wasn’t enough for the CEO to be worrying about, there’s the iPhone version, which is in development, and a major update that will finally add support for those peculiar developers who prefer to make their games using PCs
running Windows OS. Not much pressure then?
“We sit in an interesting place in the market,” ponders Helgason. “Last year at our Unity conference, on one table there were people from a venture-funded start-up making a virtual world and next to them was a 15-year-old kid with his father. We have a varied community, which works really well because a lot of those 15-year-old kids are really good and end up working with the VC companies or getting their games on the big portals.”
In fact, the activity that’s occurring behind the scenes at Unity is also being fully mirrored in the community. “Anyone who’s good using Unity is busy with all kinds of projects,” says Helgason. “It’s kind of annoying because we’ll get requests for people to help out on various developments and at the moment it’s almost impossible to find anyone who has any spare time.”
That’s one of the reasons for the push to get the Windows version of Unity finished. “It’s a very, very high priority,” Helgason explains. “There’s a lot of work in there, and it’s happening alongside all the other development work. Being a Mac-only tool is limiting though. Our most pessimistic view is that we’ll triple sales on the day we release the Windows version of Unity.” Even the Dragons should prick up their ears at that.
UNITED WE STAND
Still, Unity has come along way since it was initially rolled out as an engine and development environment for making casual and ad-based web games. But even then, it was the depth of features offered through the integrated editor system that impressed. As is now de rigueur, Unity offers a live, drag-and-drop development environment that enables you to immediately jump into the action, testing out how things work as well as analysing scripts and tweaking values.
“I think it’s a huge plus for our customers knowing they can start off making a web game but if they get a deal with Nintendo, they can put their game on the Wii or iPhone and, in time, I expect we’ll end up supporting the other consoles too,” Helgason says.
He’s currently most excited by iPhone though. “It seems Apple is incredibly open to the development community so it’s a great platform for us. The nice thing is people can start using the current version of Unity and know their game will work on iPhone,” he enthuses. “For example, you’ll be able to hook your iPhone into your Mac and prototype directly inside Unity using iPhone as an input device.”
It’s perhaps less of an issue for some users now that Unity is supporting standalone games, but deployment via its web-based browser plug-in does remain an important channel for some – notably its new MMO-based customers. It’s for this reason David Helgason points out that while percentage-wise few people will have already installed the Unity plug-in, the company’s focus on the making the installation process as smooth as possible has been vital to its later success.
For one thing, the plug-in is only a 3MB download and it doesn’t require the user to reload the page, much less restart their browser or enter registration details. So using a rough back-of-a-fag-packet calculation, if you assume Unity has a 50 per cent greater success rate than more cumbersome technologies such as Shockwave at getting people who don’t already have the plug-in installed to install it, it can gain rough parity even with those much more widely distributed technologies. For example, Unity’s figures suggest a 70 per cent total install rate for games that require installation of the Shockwave plug-in versus 60 per cent for the Unity plug-in. Not bad if you think less than one per cent of people in that model will have the Unity plug-in installed.